France has announced a ban on girls in state schools wearing abayas, loose-fitting dresses worn by some female Muslims, sparking a fresh row over secularism and women’s clothing.
The move follows a 2004 law that banned religious symbols in classrooms below university level, in a bid to uphold the French principle of secularism, or laïcité - which aims for a separation of the church and state.
Clothing and symbols that have been barred in schools include Muslim headscarves, Jewish kippas, large crosses, and other “ostentatious” religious dress or accessories from classrooms.
Gabriel Attal, the recently appointed education chief, has branded abayas, which is an Arabic term for a long, loose outer garment, as "an infringement on secularism".
Unlike headscarves, abayas occupied a grey area and faced no outright ban until now.
Mr Attal, appointed in July, announced the ban on this style of long robes to “protect” secularism, prompted by growing reports of the garments in some classrooms around the country.
“Our schools are continually tested. We know that,” Mr Attal said at a news conference, a week before of the start of the school year.
He said that the wearing of abayas and khamis, traditionally worn by men, had grown recently, and must be met with a firm response to tackle what sometimes amounts to “infringements, attempts at destabilisation".
“Public schools must, at all costs, perhaps more than any other institution, be protected from religious proselytism, from any embryo of communitarianism,” Mr Attal said, referring to the notion of communities leaning into their own cultural, spiritual or other aspects of their origins, at the expense of their Frenchness.
He added: “We must stand together. We will stand together. The abaya has no place in school, no more than religious symbols."
However, the move has received backlash from Islamic groups who argue the clothing is a fashion statement rather than religious sign for Muslims.
"For me, the abaya is not a religious garb. It’s a kind of fashion," Abdallah Zekri, a leader of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said on the news station BFMTV.
"(The abaya is) a long and ample robe. It has nothing to do (with religion).”
Mr Attal’s predecessor as education minister, Pap Ndiaye, effectively left it up to school principals whether to crack down on long robes in the classroom as the phenomenon grew.
To enforce the ban on abayas and khamis in classrooms, Mr Attal said that 14,000 educational personnel in leadership positions would be trained by the end of this year, and 300,000 personnel would be trained by 2025.
Top administrators will visit schools seeking help as well as those “where we judge specific needs to manage the start of school with them.”
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